Sunday, January 15, 2006

Evolution vs. Intelligent Design: Distinguishing Criticism from Critical Analysis

The evolution vs. intelligent design debate flared up again this week in Ohio where the state school board narrowly approved (9-8) a science lesson on evolution that critics argue inappropriately and inaccurately questions evolutionary theory.

The Situation in Ohio

For those who want the full blow-by-blow account of what has happened to date in Ohio you can find it at, as well as a shorter and somewhat differently partisan account from the Akron Beacon Journal.

What I’d like to draw attention to, however, is not the details of this particular case which is being comprehensively covered on other blogs, including the Panda's Thumb. It’s indisputably important that intelligent design be kept out of science classrooms nationwide, from Dover to Ohio to California. But it’s perhaps equally important that in the post-Kitzmiller fury to eradicate creationism and intelligent design from science curricula proponents of evolutionary theory don’t push too hard in the other direction. And that is the focus of this post.
The Value of Critical Analysis

From the Akron newspaper account describing the controversy we get the following summary:
The state school board approved lesson plans last year that say students should be able to "describe how scientists today continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory."

This is, by all accounts, an incomplete and less than wholly accurate description of the curriculum in question. But that's not the instant point. What's useful about the passage above is that it illustrates just how delicate the current intelligent design vs. evolution controversy really is.

Consider: if the entire curriculum consisted of a requirement that students “critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory” it should (and probably would) be acceptable to even the most ardent evolutionary biologist. Quite simply, mandating critical analysis is not the same thing as mandating criticism.

Science thrives on the push and pull of competing ideas, and while intelligent design has been thoroughly discredited as lacking any basis in empirical science, that does not mean that evolutionary theory, in all its nuanced complexity, is a sealed book.

The theory of evolution is well understood, but it is not yet fully understood in all its details and implications. And it is precisely the critical analysis (as opposed to blind criticism or, equally bad, unthinking acceptance) of evolution that biology courses are meant to engender in high school students who are (hopefully) budding scientists themselves.

The dangers posed by intelligent design, and other equally unsupportable examples of bad science, are real and demand that we be watchful to halt their spread. But arguing that intelligent design is bogus need not, and should not, entail the additional proposition that evolutionary theory is to be accepted without question or comment.

Darwin was right, but Darwin’s theory of evolution was also incomplete. It is only through critical analysis – which will often include some legitimate criticism – that students can hope to thoroughly understand, and one day even contribute to, the theory of evolution.


Blogger Future Geek said...

I think you are right. The question is, how much pressure is necessary to educate the public about the reality of ID vs. Science, and how much is too much?

The thing that's crazy about ID is that they will take "critical analysis" and imagine that it is criticism. I mean it's mindblowing how they can take an admission that we don't understand the entire fossil record as proof that evolution is on its last legs.

Consider this article, "censored because it challenges, scientifically, the empirical foundations of the
neo-Darwinist theory of evolution."

All he does is list some gaps in our knowledge of evolution and claim a death knell.

So what I'm saying is, these people are idiots who have latched onto an idea that is intuitive and popular, though not science. How much free reign should we give them - or should we expose them at every opportunity?

BTW, I found your site by following a link from

Fri Jan 27, 04:54:00 AM EST  

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